Does the international community have a responsibility to protect?

An exploration of a state's sovereign survival versus the protection of human rights.
Photo by: Elentari86/ CC BY-NC-SA 2.0/ Flickr

Forgotten Conflicts

Not once or twice, individual states and the international community as a whole has failed to react against serious violations of human rights, such as war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing.

Today, there are an immense number of conflicts, some well-covered and others – ‘forgotten’, such as the conflicts in Burma, Yemen, Gaza, Burundi, Chad and Nigeria. The complexity of the international security environment necessitates new approaches and concepts that concentrate on the protection of the individual and their rights within the state, such as the Responsibility to Protect (R2P).

The Concept

R2P is a global political commitment which was endorsed by all member states of the United Nations at the 2005 World Summit to prevent genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. R2P norms invoke a people-centered approach instead of the predominant state-centered approach in international politics. For the first time, the concept emphasises a state’s sovereignty as a responsibility, according to which the state is obliged to protect the human rights of its citizens.

The international community as a whole is responsible for the protection of human rights

The concept has broken through the perception that each state alone is responsible for its survival in the international system, thus introducing sovereignty, as a community function, which means that the international community as a whole is responsible for the protection of human rights in cases when a single state is unable or unwilling to protect its own citizens.

This also includes checks which the international community can impose in order to prevent potential crisis and violations of human rights perpetrated by the state to its own citizens, such as the concept of a ‘Responsibility while Protecting’, developed by Brazil. The concept emphasises the necessity to follow strictly the principles of R2P.

According to the International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect, the state has the primary responsibility for the protection of populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing.

Meanwhile, the international community has a responsibility to assist states in this commitment and use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means to protect populations from these crimes. Should a state fail to protect its populations or is in fact the perpetrator of crimes, the international community must be prepared to take stronger measures, including the collective use of force through the UN Security Council.


Regardless of the wide acceptance of the concept during the High-level Plenary Meeting of the General Assembly in September 2005 and its reaffirmation during the 2009 meeting, the international community still faces serious challenges to implement it.

Even though the concept of R2P advocates a people-centered approach, the structure of international politics and the anarchic character of the international system compels the international community to evaluate politics through the state-centered approach. Anarchy in international relations means that the world lacks any supreme authority, sovereign or coercive power that can enforce law, resolve disputes or create order. In accordance to this, the most vital interest of every state is its own survival which is put above the interests of individual human beings and their individual human rights.  

Moreover, recent events have exemplified this logic of international politics in at least two cases which diverted security again on issues such as inter-state threat evaluation, militarization and nuclear arms.


  1. The Bush administration and the ‘war on terror’ – when interventionism in Afghanistan, on moral grounds was used to veil the real intention of interference into the internal affairs of weaker states to pursue self-interests and soft influence.
  2. The intervention of Russia in Ukraine for the purpose of the protection of rights of the Russian minority within the Ukrainian state. In fact, it can be argued that the real intention of the Russian state was the annexation of Crimea, which was achieved.

The question now is, do we have a responsibility to protect and how can we realize it?

Considering the reluctance for cooperation at the highest level, as shown in the events mentioned above, the second challenge comes from the limitations of the UN system. In order to operationalize and implement a R2P mandate in a particular case,  consent should be achieved in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).

It seems we are reverting back to a deadlock witnessed during the Cold War

Resolution 1970/2011 affirmed Libya’s ‘responsibility to protect’ and marked the first time the Council had referred to the R2P framework since a 2006 resolution on the situation in Darfur. Nonetheless, the Russian Federation and China were not satisfied with the outcome of the intervention in Libya and accused the multi-state NATO-led coalition of overstepping the UN mandate.

Thus, the Russian Federation, for example, is highly unlikely to consider R2P after the events in Libya, and thus can be expected to use its veto to block any UNSC approval for potential R2P initiatives in the near future. It seems we are reverting back to a deadlock witnessed during the Cold War, when the UNSC was incapacitated by the confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States.

In other words, the institutionalization of the principle of balance of power, especially in the affairs of the UNSC and the realist approach towards collective security, pose serious challenges to the implementation of R2P and impede the full realization of the principle of collective security in international affairs.

Overcoming the Deadlock

Until states decide to put human security and human rights at the forefront of their security agenda, steps towards overcoming this deadlock are unlikely. The principle of collective security, which currently shapes the international order, should be perceived as a principle of collective commitment toward human rights and the protection of human beings.

Therefore, the security assessment of the international community should be centered predominantly on issues such as human rights and the protection of people. In light of the foregoing, collective security  should mean that each state in the system recognizes that the security of one and the protection of its people is the concern of all and agrees to join in a collective response to violations of human rights.

Institutions such as the UN should be standard-bearers for trust-building and cooperation between states in promoting human rights and setting checks for states’ commitment towards the protection of human beings. The full realization of the principle of collective security can be achieved only after overcoming the realist approach toward it because there is something even more vital than the survival of the state and that is the survival of the individual.

Does the international community have a responsibility to protect?
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Zhuliyan Zhelezov

Zhuliyan has obtained a Master’s degree in International Security and Law from the University of Southern Denmark. He has obtained a ‘Master of Laws’ degree from the University of Sofia ‘St. Kliment Ohridski’. He has specialized in counter-terrorism and international criminal justice at the University of Salford (UK). He has also specializations in international law and international relations from the University of Sofia ‘St. Kliment Ohridski’. He works in the field of anti-money laundering and the prevention of the financing of terrorist organizations. His main interests are in the field of contemporary conflicts: terrorism, counter-terrorism, insurgency, counter-insurgency, and hybrid warfare.
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